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Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, is the setting of Julian Fellowes‘s  fictional Emmy award-winning PBS series, Downton Abbey.  It is entirely fitting and appropriate to review this book, as it not only elucidates the fascinating social structure and hierarchy found in manor houses, but more importantly provides an account of an era in British history whose legacy changed the world.

The author, The Countess of Carnarvon, a.k.a. Lady Fiona Carnarvon, married the current Earl of Carnarvon in 1999 and thus has the credentials and access to archives, photographs, letters and household accounts related to the history of this famous home. She writes with clarity and authority. The book covers the period of 1895 to the late 1920s. Numerous vintage photos abound throughout the book. Number of pages: 298.

It is tempting to compare Downton Abbey to Highclere Castle, but the author does not do that. That is for the reader to do. Instead, she tells the story of Lord and Lady Carnarvon and their home, staff, and aristocratic friends.  The estate land belonged to the Bishops of Winchester for 800 years before transferring into private hands, eventually to the Carnarvon family, whose name has been associated with it for more than 300 years since. Lady Fiona makes a point of saying that the home owns the family, not the other way around. Families change, new Lords and Ladies move in, and yet the home remains solid and secure in its traditions and in the way it is  run by its own ever-changing staff.

On June 26, 1895, a pretty 19-year-old girl named Almina Wombwell married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a match that was meant to secure the financial well-being of Highclere Castle. Almina was the daughter of the very wealthy Alfred de Rothschild and was raised in Paris. The couple met through connections between her father and the Carnarvon family, and there was an immediate attraction.  Lord Carnarvon became more and more smitten with the beauty through several meetings at Highclere, and she was very much in love with him. He also was very well aware of her financial connections, which boosted her favor immensely, and of which he took full advantage. However, it was truly a love match, and a year and a half after their first meeting, they married at St. Margaret’s, Westminster.

Almina had always been indulged, and she spent lavishly on herself, her friends, and the various causes she supported. As a new bride, she was thrust into a world of aristocrats, politicians, and nobility. She was never more happy than when organizing an event and spending money, and so the partying began. In time, she would entertain the Prince of Wales, soon-to-be King Edward VII; the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough; T.E. Lawrence; King George and Queen Mary; many high-ranking members of the Royal Army and Royal  Navy; and an eclectic group of politicians, Egyptologists, surgeons, bankers, and aviators. Unlimited resources were brought forth when needed, and if she needed more, she went to Alfred, her father and benefactor. He would say something like “I gave you 10,000 (pounds) last month. What did you do with it?” Almina would say she needed more for this or that, and he would bring out his checkbook. Until he died, Alfred was a most generous benefactor, and his resources funded Almina’s many causes and impulses.

Downstairs was ruled by the house steward, Streatfield, who was responsible for up to 18 male members of the staff, and the housekeeper presumably supervised as many females. He also ordered supplies, managed accounts, and disciplined the staff when necessary. Lady Fiona goes into great detail as to the many specific duties performed by each staff member; the work load was heavy, and all must perform their specifically assigned duties for the household to run smoothly. Though the new Countess organized the upstairs, no one would doubt that Streatfield ran the Castle. Countesses come and Countesses go, but a good house steward stays for life. (Lady Fiona Carnarvon)

Outside the Castle lay the rest of the estate. There was every type of labor to be done: carpenters, electricians, forestry men, gardeners, iron smiths and many others worked to the benefit of this self-contained community, and greenhouses, storage rooms, dairy yards, and fruit orchards were maintained to supply the estate. Lord Carnarvon oversaw this with kindness and skill. This attitude spilled down the hierarchy, which made for a strict but benevolent environment. As long as the rules were understood and respected, life on the estate was good. As a rule, staff remained employed at Highclere for long periods of time, as many as 40 years, some less to be sure, but the reality was that this employment provided not only some financial means but a family as well. Loyalty was rewarded by being  moved up when the house needs permitted. Occasionally, a romance blossomed, but it was discouraged. Nevertheless, men and women did marry either from inside or outside the house. If they remained in service, they would be given a cottage somewhere on the estate, and this helped maintain a stable workforce.  The upstairs was also considered family, and they sometimes held outings and parties for downstairs.

Rumors of war and declaration of war unleashed an unprecedented activity in Britain. Manor houses throughout the country were converted to hospitals for returning soldiers of the Great War. Lady Almina was one of the first to open her home, and she did it with her enormous financial backing and her attention to detail. Each soldier had his own room and nurse, and all of the resources of the estate were used for the healing and comfort of the men. No other manor house had the imagination and compassion of Lady Almina, and Highclere became the hospital of choice, once the military became aware. Almina knew that it took more than a bed and simple dressings to heal the wounded. They needed a quiet place with all the amenities she could provide. Nurses were brought in and doctors engaged. Luxurious bedding and other amenities were purchased. This went on for the duration of the war. For the last two years Almina moved the operation to her house at Bryanston Square, London, to be near doctors and specialists she could not acquire in the country. Her work saved many lives, and she received the nation’s thanks and gratitude. Lady Almina had found her calling in nursing and hospital administration, and she would continue this work for the rest of her life.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923)

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lady Fiona has a comprehensive knowledge of the Great War, its soldiers, officers, and battles. She brings the reader to a new and different look at war. She writes from a woman’s point of view, weaving stories of home and family into her descriptions.  Men from Highclere Castle volunteered for service, and downstairs and upstairs contributed their efforts equally. Many did not come home, and of those who did, some had lost limbs, their eyesight, and their spirit. Some arrived home intact only to contract Spanish flu and die a few days later. That disease spread from the Continent to Britain, to America and around the world, as soldiers came home from the Great War. It was the largest pandemic ever witnessed.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon raised a son and heir, Lord Porchester (Porchy); and Evelyn, called Eve. Porchy was active in the military; Eve followed her mother’s lead in nursing.  Their circle of friends and acquaintances reached throughout the Empire, and their influence did the same.

Throughout her marriage, Lady Almina traveled widely with her husband in Europe, America, and the far East, but they most often traveled to Egypt. Lord Carnarvon was a self-taught archaeologist, and his collection of Egyptian art was unsurpassed. In 1907, Lord Carnarvon met Howard Carter, and their friendship was to last until his death in 1923. Their obsession with Egyptian antiquities ultimately led to the unearthing of King  Tutankhamun’s tomb. Many years of back-breaking work and organization, political wrangling, sickness, and lack of funds made this a most miserable kind of work. Lord Carnarvon was never in good health after an auto accident from years ago. During the last months of exploration, he was laid ill for several months. He went back to Highclere for rest and recuperation. On November 6, 1922, Carter sent him this telegram: At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations.

Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings

Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He hurried back to the Valley of the Kings to join Carter. The two men opened the seal of the tomb, with only a few others present, including Lady Eve. They put a light through the small opening of the ante-chamber. What they saw was astonishing, but still not the ultimate treasures still awaiting. By this time word was out, and the world was watching. Journalists literally stumbled over each other vying for the story and the photos. Excavating and cataloging a site is painstaking work, and both men meant to take their time. The chaos was unacceptable, and Carter moved to stop it. He struck a deal with the New York Times for the exclusive rights to the story. News organizations from all over the world complained loudly, but it was done. Now the men could get on with their work with far fewer interruptions.

The work of cleaning out and cataloging the two ante-chambers took many weeks, and when it was finished, they decided to take a break. The tomb was closed, and armed guards were installed outside. For a few weeks, they rested and relished in the knowledge that they had finally found what they knew all along was waiting for them. Carnarvon was still unwell, but it was an infected mosquito bite that put him down with a fever. Almina was called from Highclere, and she arrived in time to help Eve in an attempt to nurse him back to health. However, he developed pneumonia and delirium, and on the morning of April 5, 1923, Lord Carnarvon breathed his last. After 15 years of painstaking work, Carnarvon was never to see the inside of King Tut’s tomb, an irony that rings through the ages.

Lady Almina supported the remaining work with her own funds, and Carter and the Egyptian government were ever grateful. In 1936 the government repaid her 16,000 pounds covering her expenses. In return, ownership of the discovery was transferred to the Egyptian government.

In time, Lady Almina remarried, and when her son the 6th Earl married and took over the estate, Almina and her husband moved to Scotland. There is so much more to this book than I could possibly review. Read it and enjoy it.

I will end with a quote from Lady Fiona Carnarvan: The challenge for Highclere is to ensure that the Castle and its estate businesses remain strong enough to preserve their rich heritage. It is the same need to balance business and conservation that confronted Almina. We hope that, if she were here today, she would recognise things and feel a sense of pride that much of what she loved had been preserved and that the spirit of her work was continuing through her great-grandson and his family.

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